Nominated Films Hope for Oscar Gold

If the Academy Awards ceremony marks the culmination of a year of filmmaking, then the nominations mark the end of another cycle of jockeying for dollars and recognition on the part of the studios.

Millions can be made by a film nominated in a major category, especially best picture. Last year's "Million Dollar Baby" had made only $8.5 million when it was nominated for best picture. It went on to make $56 million by Oscar night.

By recognizing "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "Good Night and Good Luck," "Munich" and "Capote" in the best picture category, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has rewarded these small films for excellence and, by extension, positioned them to double their take at the box office.

"Those five movies may have only made about $185 million combined so far, but that will be $250 [million] or $300 million by Oscar night." said Gabriel Snyder, senior writer for Variety.

The studios are counting on it.

After nominations are announced, many moviegoers like to see as many of the best picture nominees as possible. In the industry, such moviegoers are called collectors, taken from the fast-food sales pitch urging consumers to "collect all five." Studios can anticipate the smaller, predictable revenue of a target audience, but if the film has Oscar potential and is lucky enough to get a best picture nomination, studios can count on these collectors and their dollars to make a small film as wildly successful as a blockbuster.

As for the real blockbusters of 2005, the Academy was not impressed. Although successful at the box office, "War of the Worlds," "Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" and the latest Harry Potter film were not recognized in any major categories. Some moviegoers might feel alienated by a best picture category that does not include any big, popular films.

"A lot of moviegoers look to the Oscars to validate their own likes and dislikes" said Gregg Kilday, film editor for The Hollywood Reporter. "If 'King Kong' is your favorite movie, you'd love to see that as a best picture nominee. But the Oscars have never been a popularity contest."

Becoming a Niche Unto Themselves

This year's lack of an Oscar-worthy blockbuster like "Lord of the Rings" left the best picture category wide open to small, critically acclaimed films like "Brokeback Mountain," which was made for only $14 million. With "Brokeback's" eight Oscar nominations in major categories, $14 million is a small expense compared with the massive budget for "War of the Worlds," which received three Oscar nominations in technical categories but cost $132 million to make.

Even without the Oscar nominations, "Brokeback Mountain" can already be considered a successful film for passing the $50 million mark in U.S. theaters in less than two months. So far, it has made $52 million domestically and about $10 million overseas. With the nominations bestowed on Tuesday, "Brokeback Mountain" is poised to make another $50 million between now and Oscar night without its distributor, Focus Features, spending a penny more on advertising.

This strategy -- positioning small, high-quality art films for Oscar nominations -- has created a newly realized niche of movies. While the Academy can usually be relied upon to identify smaller, well-made films overlooked by audiences, some industry analysts say studios now make more movies specifically for Academy Award recognition.

"Oscar-targeted films are becoming a niche unto themselves, just like gross-out comedies, summer blockbusters, thriller movies and romantic comedies," said Snyder.

Political Movies in Style

If there is a new Oscar niche, it appears to be films with politically charged subject matter. This year the best picture contenders all have serious political issues or real historical figures as themes.

"Crash" sparked a meaningful discourse about racial tensions in urban America, while "Brokeback Mountain" is still feeding a vibrant national debate about the groundbreaking gay love story within the film. "Munich," with its challenging historical perspective of the violence surrounding the struggle in the Middle East, and "Good Night and Good Luck," with its opinionated view of the role of the free press in the era of McCarthyism, both force audiences to confront serious and somewhat polarizing subjects -- issues that are timely in America today. The Academy embraced these films along with their challenging themes. Studios have hoped audiences would do the same.

"These nominations indicate that the Academy is really receptive to the theme of struggle," said Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America. "It's a strong indication that the art form is an art form, not a business. These films are not safe, not tuned down, they are fiercely original. I love that and I think people appreciate that."

But Will Viewers Tune In?

But most audiences across the country have not had the opportunity to see "Capote" or "Good Night and Good Luck." Their small budgets have meant a slow release in few theaters, only 348 nationwide for "Capote."

With Tuesday's nomination, "Capote" will now expand to 1,200 theaters. But even with more screens to draw them in, audiences may find it difficult to get excited about this year's Oscar night. Producers for the Academy Awards broadcast know they'll have to find other ways to attract viewers. With Jon Stewart hosting and a long roster of A-list celebrities as presenters, they are confident that viewers will tune in. But will they stick around until the end of the show?

"As a producer, of course, I'd much rather have nominated films seen by millions and millions of people," said Gilbert Cates, a 12-time producer of the Oscar broadcast and producer of the March 5 show. "The year 'Titanic' was nominated was great, because millions of people had a vested interest in the outcome of that show. But the Oscars celebrate quality, and these five best picture films are quality films."